The other day a young colleague and I were discussing the best argument to use against those who say that advocating negotiations as the only means to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "naive." We debated the most effective response to the charge that there is no Palestinian partner; that Oslo failed because of Palestinian cheating; that the Hamas victory ends any hope for peace; and that the only realistic approach for Israel is to militarily crush the Palestinians. I offered my own detailed response to each of those points - responses that are, in my opinion, airtight. But my colleague wouldn't have any of it. He said that all you have to do is ask the status-quo supporters, "So, how is your solution doing?" That is a perfect response. There is no reason for those of us who support negotiations to feel defensive or to give a point-by-point rebuttal to those who champion the status quo. Just tell them to read the newspapers. The Oslo process collapsed in the fall of 2000 and, ever since, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has intensified with a vengeance. Compare the half dozen civilians killed inside Israel between the fall of 1997 and the fall of 2000, and the 1,125 Israelis and 4,286 Palestinians killed since. The only people who should be defensive about the diplomatic process are those who oppose it. Of course, no one ever flat-out says they oppose negotiations. Nowadays the name of the game is to say you favor both negotiations and the two-state solution, but then to offer a host of conditions that make either impossible. Most often used is the argument that one must negotiate but not with these people! Or not at this time. Or not until they do this, that, or the other thing. On Wednesday of last week, Spain, France and Italy put forward a five-point plan to help end the conflict. The plan consists of the following: an immediate cease-fire, formation of a national unity government by the Palestinians that can gain international recognition, an exchange of prisoners - including the Israeli soldiers whose capture sparked the war in Lebanon and fighting in Gaza - talks between Israel's prime minister and the Palestinian president, and an international mission in Gaza to monitor a cease-fire. Sounds reasonable. Nevertheless, sources in Israel reported that the plan has been rejected out of hand. The objection is that the Europeans put out their ideas without first consulting with Israel. But why? Why should the Europeans have to consult with the Israelis or the Palestinians? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has reverberations far from Israel and Palestine. The Europeans have every right to offer a blueprint for ending it, just so long as they do not attempt to force it on anyone, which they have no intention of doing and couldn't do even if they were so inclined. As Prime Minister Blair said recently: "Israel-Palestine is the one issue that, unresolved, allows extremists" to defeat "the more moderate elements of the Muslim and Arab world." Why the repeated rush to rejection? WHAT'S NEEDED are negotiations with the Palestinians to establish a full cease-fire. Yes, those very negotiations which both sides say they are committed to but which never quite seem to happen. Obviously, Israel is not going to negotiate with Hamas but there is no reason to avoid negotiations with President Mahmoud Abbas, whether he is president of the Palestinian Authority with Hamas running the government or, preferably, with a new non-Hamas "unity government" in charge. The process should start with a prisoner exchange. What possible objection could there be to an exchange in which Israel gets back Corporal Shalit and Mahmoud Abbas achieves the release of some of the Palestinian prisoners, perhaps starting with the parliamentarians seized earlier this year? In January 2004 Israel released 500 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in return for a kidnapped Israeli businessman and the bodies of four soldiers. They were released not to Abbas but to Hizbullah - an act that simultaneously weakened Abbas and strengthened the Hizbullah leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Handing Palestinian prisoners to Abbas would not only produce freedom for Shalit but would strengthen Abbas at the expense of Hamas, which would again be shown to be incapable of delivering anything for the Palestinian people. A prisoner exchange and cease-fire would set the stage for negotiations based on the road map, or on any new US plan that emerges from the Baker-Hamilton Report, or any other vehicle. The bottom line is that the violence stops, that Israel gets its soldiers back, and the Palestinians see that Abbas can deliver the goods. I know all the objections to negotiations, but they don't add up. Why do those who argue that the Palestinians won't negotiate in good faith - or comply with agreements reached - oppose testing them? In the past, both Palestinians and Israelis have reached agreements with which both have abided, sometimes, and reneged on, at other times. The answer to the failure of past agreements to fully succeed is not to avoid all future agreements but to negotiate better ones. Besides, negotiations are not a favor that Israel gives to the Palestinians when they "behave." Negotiation is the only workable device for ending a conflict for two peoples who are not mere neighbors but who actually share the same land. Israel can no more "defeat" the Palestinians than the Catholics in Northern Ireland could have "defeated" the Protestants. Nor can the Palestinians defeat them. All each side can do is kill each other's kids, and that is what they are doing. Those who object to negotiations need only be asked one thing. "So, how is your solution doing?" In a choice between "solutions" which we know in advance will not work, and a solution that might, the sensible path is obvious. It is not more of the same.